How a soccer-specific stadium might get built in Minnesota

Courtesy of Minnesota United FC
Minnesota United fans

As a political issue, this one seems extraordinarily short-lived. Government assistance in any form to build a new stadium for the region’s new all-but-official Major League Soccer franchise?

Absolutely not.

Citing “stadium fatigue,” elected officials from Gov. Mark Dayton to Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges have said “No.”

Not just, “Probably not” or “I don’t think so.” But “No” as in: “Don’t even bother to ask.”

Which is appropriate, because the prospective owners of MLS’ 24th franchise — a group led by former UnitedHealth CEO Bill McGuire but that also includes Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Twins owners the Pohlad family — haven’t made any actual requests. In fact, the group expected to land the team hasn’t said much of anything, leaving a vacuum to be filled by a lot of speculation.

But given the proclivities of professional sports owners, the assumption is that a request to help build a stadium will be made. Maybe that’s why political leaders felt the need to deliver a preemptive “sshhh.”

So that’s the end of it, then? 

Perhaps … but possibly not. The one elected official who hasn’t offered an outright “No” is Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who publicly backed the McGuire group in its pursuit of the franchise, even traveling to New York to support the group’s formal pitch. That move put him squarely at odds with the Wilf family, the Vikings owners who were also pursuing a team in the billionaire vs. billionaire battle for an MLS franchise.

Opat chose wisely. Last week, the MLS confirmed that it was in talks with the McGuire group to bring a franchise to the Twin Cities. On Monday the league and Minnesota United announced that McGuire and MLS Commissioner Don Garber will hold a press conference Wednesday at Target Field. The purpose is “to make a major announcement on the future of soccer in Minnesota.”

It helped that McGuire brought soccer credibility, having purchased the lower division Minnesota United and turned it into one of the best run and most successful American teams not playing in MLS. And that he offered the prospect of what the MLS and most soccer fans desire, even demand: a soccer-specific stadium with a grass playing surface.  

The rival bid from the Wilfs was always a second choice for soccer supporters — and, it turns out, the league. Among the relatively small but zealous community of people who care about American soccer, the Wilfs are not considered “soccer people.” And their stadium, which is being built with hefty government subsidies, will not only have artificial turf; it would be the only MLS stadium with a fixed roof. Currently, only two MLS franchises will play in retractable roof stadiums and only a handful on artificial turf. 

When is a public subsidy not a subsidy?

So what might public involvement for an urban, soccer-specific facility look like, if no doesn’t necessarily mean no? 

First, it would look nothing like the subsidies for the Vikings, the Wild or the Twins. Soccer-specific stadiums are not as large or elaborate as those stadiums and arenas. Orlando City, the most recent addition to the MLS, for example, is building a 20,000-seat downtown soccer stadium for $115 million. The public subsidy for the Lowertown ballpark for the St. Paul Saints — the city and state paid for more than two-thirds of the $63 million stadium — is much larger than that of most MLS stadiums across the continent.

Orlando City's new downtown soccer stadium
Orlando City SC
Orlando City’s new downtown soccer stadium breaks ground this year and will be open for the first game of the 2016 MLS season.

Speculation around a Minneapolis stadium has focused on a few ideas that could perhaps be configured so as not to be direct subsidies (or at least not to look like direct subsidies). A co-development of the Minneapolis Farmers Market property, for example, could see government picking up the costs of utilities and road reconfiguration, under the theory that it would benefit county properties but also the stadium itself. Even reluctant politicians can often be talked into exempting such projects from sales and property taxes, under the rationale that without the exemption, nothing will be built anyway.  

Then there’s the so-called Twins Surplus. The state law that authorized Hennepin County to add a 0.15 percent sales tax for the ballpark is producing more revenue than forecast. Even after the $5 million a year that goes to increasing county library hours, contributing to youth and sports programs and creating a long-term maintenance fund for the ballpark, the tax is collecting more than is needed for its debt service. So far, the county has used the excess to retire some of the $350 million in stadium bonds early. County finance director David Lawless estimates the debt will be retired in 20 years rather than 30 — by 2027 rather than 2037.  

Could that revenue be shifted to finance soccer stadium debt? Not without an act of the Minnesota Legislature, it couldn’t. The legislation for Target Field quite clearly states that once the bonds are paid off “the taxes shall terminate and shall not be re-imposed.” But if the law were changed, it wouldn’t be the first time someone invoked “it’s-not-REALLY-a-new-tax” rhetoric to finance a stadium. 

Why not other venues? 

Presuming they get the go-ahead from MLS, soccer backers led by McGuire (or whomever he hires to help make the case to public and politicians) would face another yet another hurdle: explaining why they couldn’t play in one of the area’s other stadiums.

The Vikings stadium would not be available because the Wilfs were granted exclusive rights to field a soccer team there. But why not TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota, where last summer’s Guinness Cup games were played?

“Football is played in a rectangle. Soccer is played in a rectangle. Why can’t they play there?” is how soccer writer and Minnesota United supporter Alex Schieferdecker summarizes the point of view.  “But people who follow soccer have it imprinted on their brains that it just doesn’t work. It has to be grass with the proper dimensions.”

Minneapolis Farmers Market
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Absent a request for tax dollars, politicians local and state may well like the idea of a smaller stadium (20,000 seats or so) in the ripe-for-redevelopment area between Target Field and the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

Schieferdecker admits that such thoughts are considered minutiae by non-fans. But supporters might also ask politicians and the public why just because they are last in line they should be less worthy of public involvement than a pro football team, a college football team, a professional hockey team, a professional basketball team, a Major League baseball team and an independent league baseball team. All of those teams now play in facilities specific to their sport — and all received taxpayer help.

A potentially powerful constituency

All of this presumes, of course, that McGuire et al. will ask for financial help. If the group doesn’t – if it decides to privately finance the stadium’s construction — then the issue becomes much simpler: one of land-use and infrastructure improvements.

Absent a request for tax dollars, politicians local and state may well like the idea of a smaller stadium (20,000 seats or so) in the ripe-for-redevelopment area between Target Field and the Minneapolis Farmers Market. That location would sit in the crux of the proposed Green Line extension and the proposed Blue Line extension to Brooklyn Park. Hennepin County owns some property in the area it would like to see redeveloped, as do the Pohlads, through their real-estate development division, United Properties.

What isn’t well known, but will be soon, are the idiosyncrasies of the fan base for MLS. Millennials form the core of soccer supporters in hotbeds such as Seattle and Portland. They live in city; they ride transit; they inhabit the coffee shops and craft breweries that mark the revitalization of urban neighborhoods. And they make up a significant portion of the coalition that elects folks like Hodges and even Gov. Mark Dayton.

Midfielder Miguel Ibarra
Courtesy of Minnesota United FC
Midfielder Miguel Ibarra

Along with white professionals, suburban families and, increasingly, recent immigrant communities from Africa and Latin America, the soccer fan base is unique, wrote Wes Burdine on Northern Pitch.  “A brand new soccer stadium becomes a meeting space for the precise target of revitalizing and integrating the urban core.”

They are a potentially potent but so far silent constituency. And if McGuire decides he does want a public “partner” in a stadium project, he is certain to try to enlist them with a cry of “Scarves Up.” 

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Brad James on 03/23/2015 - 10:12 am.

    Major League???

    The MLS is regarded as the 10th best soccer league in the world. People currently have choice between the best Basketball, Hockey, Baseball leagues in this town. Why bother with an also ran? I get that Seattle and Portland lack other options. New York, LA, Dallas are so large they can support more teams. Sponsors do not want to affiliate with such low rent leagues like the MLS. The MLS needs to prove that there is more than a limited following before a solitary dime gets tossed their way. Play in the Vikess or Gopher’s stadium for bit to see if you gain traction.

    A scenario where the MLS pushes kitsch akin to what the Northern League does in St. Paul, may make sense. Being an earnest that this is high level soccer will prove troublesome.

  2. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 03/23/2015 - 10:32 am.

    Why not?

    I disagree that there isn’t room for the team. Seattle also has pro football, basketball, and baseball. All they lack is hockey. As the article suggests, the demographic groups that support soccer include folks that don’t show up for those other sports. Urban hipsters and recent immigrants are not in abundance at any of the “big 4” games I’ve been to recently. But they’re out in force at the MN United games even though they have to drive to Blaine. I think it’s very likely Minneapolis could create exactly the kind of support that Seattle and Portland have created for MLS.

    Connect the stadium up to light rail, create a better parking and traffic environment for the farmer’s market, and I think you’ve got a real winner. I hope it happens!

    • Submitted by Brad James on 03/23/2015 - 01:10 pm.

      Seattle does not have pro basketball. I went to a Seattle Sounders game. The characterization that its full of hipsters is overblown. Mostly the crowd is suburban dads in Docker’s pleated khakis with a couple of kids in tow. Just like most pro sports.

      It’s a big miscalculation to assume that touting this as a stadium for urban hipsters and recent immigrants is going to garner much support at the Capitol.

  3. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 03/23/2015 - 10:58 am.

    If a billionaire wants the public to build him a stadium, it’s going to happen, so why do we go through the charade of pretending like it isn’t?

    Is it a ruse on the part of local media and politicians to make us think there is some kind of thoughtful process going on here?

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/23/2015 - 11:04 am.

    The process with any effort to build a publicly funded stadium always starts with “no”. That’s because the economic reasons why publicly funding a stadium are both intuitively understood, and supported by universal academic research. The folks who have built the multitude of stadiums in recent years have been able to do it, not by winning arguments but by avoiding them, by finding ways around them.

    It’s obviously absurd to build a soccer stadium. No soccer team has ever succeeded in Minnesota, and this new one is almost certain to fail, leaving us with an unused stadium. Furthermore, by making an offer considerably less than the cost of a new stadium, to the Wilfs, the new owners could easily secure the right to play in the Vikings Stadium. But to stadium supporters, these and many more aren’t reasons not to build a stadium, they are simply arguments to be gotten around in order to get the funding of the stadium they want. It won’t be easy. It will take time. Influential people will need to be persuaded. But all of it is subject to the basic and overwhelming consideration in stadium building strategy which is, you can lose a hundred even a million arguments about building stadiums, but you only have to win once. That’s why we have a Vikings Stadium, and if the soccer folks win, that’s why we will have a soccer stadium, if not necessarily a team to play in it.

    • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 03/23/2015 - 01:29 pm.

      Fail?

      The MLS has been very, VERY careful not to repeat the mistakes of the old NASL and other indoor leagues that have folded. But MLS is quite successful and the fan base continues to grow. It’s been around more than 20 years and the league has taken great care to make sure it will stay around. Soccer is growing in popularity and just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean its not happening. The team will be a success here.

  5. Submitted by frank watson on 03/23/2015 - 11:18 am.

    No NBA in Seattle.

    Bill, the NBA moved out of Seattle to Oklahoma City years ago.

  6. Submitted by Paul Rider on 03/23/2015 - 12:09 pm.

    Private funding?

    Hey. Ask us MNUFC fans and season ticket holders to help buy the new stadium. I’d gladly give for the cause! Can’t wait to finally have a REAL major sports team here…

    • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 03/23/2015 - 01:31 pm.

      True…true

      Unlike all of the other sports teams here, Minnesota’s minor league soccer team actually won its league championship within the last decade and should have played in it last year. It is a high quality team that will win over casual fans.

  7. Submitted by Adam Miller on 03/23/2015 - 05:02 pm.

    Sure seems like

    There should be a path for this to get done with private money to build the stadium itself and public involvement only with respect to upgrading the infrastructure (which needs to be done anyway), Farmer’s market and surrounding re-development.

    It seems there will be a press conference with MLS on Wednesday. Given that having the stadium situation sorted was a gating factor for MLS, maybe that means something has already been worked out? And if it does mean that, maybe it also implies a privately financed stadium? That would be great.

  8. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 03/23/2015 - 06:59 pm.

    NASCAR….

    would be nice. They build their own facilities and don’t sponge off the public like the NFL, NBA, Major league Baseball, etc…

    • Submitted by Jack Lint on 03/24/2015 - 08:19 am.

      Think again

      NASCAR is increasingly looking towards public funding to help build new speedways as they attempt to expand to different parts of the country.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 03/24/2015 - 08:44 am.

      Not really

      NASCAR tracks have a targeted federal tax break.

      And some tracks do have public financing. For instance, the Florida Legislature passed a bill last year to provide funding to renovate the track in Daytona.

  9. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 03/26/2015 - 10:45 am.

    Ahhh….

    The quiet confidence of a Governor who has ran his last race and now can actually act like an adult and make rational decisions based on facts. The Pohlads, Taylor and McGuire can pay for their stadium and the taxpayers can update roads into this area and add a few amenities to the Farmer’s Market area to push the economic vitality of Target Field and First Ave. all the way to Lyndale Ave. Behold the wonder of term limits: take away the pressure of the next election and responsible governing pops out the other end.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/29/2015 - 07:09 am.

    Rationality takes us in strange directions. A lot of sports policy is driven by the desire of various powerful communities to build stadiums. For a while now, the reason for being for the Vikings and the Twins, and now the soccer team, has been that business and labor wanted to build stadiums for them. The most absurd example of that was the new Saints Stadium built for a team that doesn’t really exist in any competitive sense. In the Vikings and Twins cases, now that the stadiums have been built for them, both franchises seem to be adrift and aimless, without any reason for being or motivation to get better. The attention of the business and labor communities has moved on from them as well. Now the drive is to build a soccer stadium. Its certainly irrational from the sense of the taxpayers who couldn’t care less about soccer and surely has better uses for the money. But for business and labor, dependent as they have been on stadium revenues which are now drying up, finding some new sport to build a stadium for makes perfect sense.

  11. Submitted by Adam Miller on 03/23/2015 - 05:11 pm.

    Have you been to Royalston at night?

    It’s pretty scary right now. Heck, it can be scary during the day given the serious lack of people in the area when there isn’t a Farmer’s Market happening. Seems to me that a stadium could be part of the overall redevelopment of the area, which has a very long way to do.

    I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we forego it on the assumption that a light rail line that may or may not ever get built will soon spark alternative development. Especially as there will still be plenty of underutilized land in the area.

  12. Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/23/2015 - 05:31 pm.

    The problem for a soccer stadium

    Is that it is plying in a toxic wake. Looking at both the fiscal liability Minneapolis will carry for my lifetime and the monument to hubris and new massive dead zone on otherwise high-value land that we are being coerced to pay for, how can we have an appetite for yet another stadium? Absent the Vikings stadium, as a Mpls resident/taxpayer I’d be happy to support a (comparatively) human-scale and multipurpose stadium for a (comparatively) human-scale sport, particularly as it reflects and nods to our increasingly diverse population. I might even go to a game. But at this point the notion of another professional stadium on city real estate, with or without a dime of public support, can’t be pondered without a sardonic guffaw at the absurdity. Which of course, as Mr Callahan above notes, doesn’t mean it won’t get built or I won’t be paying for it.

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